Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teresa Forcades: A "hopeful woman" speaks on the state of women in the Church

by José Manuel Vidal (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Religión Digital
October 23, 2011

She is a doctor, a theologian, and a cloistered nun. However, Teresa Forcades, the Benedictine from the convent of St. Benet in Montserrat, is known all over the world. A YouTube video against the multinationals and the swine flu hoax catapulted her into fame. We interviewed her in Madrid on October 7th, taking advantage of the presentation of her book, La teología feminista en la historia ("Feminist Theology in History" -- Fragmenta). Sister Teresa states that women's situation of exclusion in the Church is "a scandal" and that "no Pope has dared to ban women priests ex cathedra." But she also acknowledges that it has been in the Church and in her convent that she has felt most respected as a woman.

Why does a cloistered nun like yourself write a book on "feminist theology in history"?

The book was proposed by the publishing house Fragmenta. They proposed it because they knew that I had trained with theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. I met her in Barcelona in 1992, before the Olympics. I was going to study in the United States, to specialize in internal medicine. She had come from Harvard and gave a lecture. A lecture in which the communication broke down because the interpreter, who knew English well, knew nothing about theology. I got up to help with the translation from English to Catalan and the problem was solved. Elizabeth was delighted and invited me to visit her at Harvard. In the end, it was she who came to Buffalo, in northern New York state, where my hospital was, to give another lecture.

And you had to get up again as a spontaneous interpreter?

I went to her lecture, which there was no need to translate, and we met again. And, as a result, I started to translate one of her books into Catalan, her book about feminist Biblical hermeneutics. I liked the book very much and translated it to delve deeper into its contents. When I finished the translation, I went to interview Schüssler Fiorenza a couple of times, to share my doubts and reflections with her. Seeing how I had received, understood and processed her book, she encouraged me to study theology and wrote me a letter of recommendation to study at Harvard.

A life journey the publishing house knew about.

Exactly. What's more, I had given some lectures on feminist theology in Barcelona. And when the publishing house launched this series of brief, introductory books that could serve as university texts to introduce the theological discipline, they asked me to write the book and I agreed with pleasure.

As a feminist theologian, is the current situation of women in the Church painful to you particularly?

The situation of women in the Church has a complex history that includes both discrimination and promotion. The discrimination hurts anyone who is for justice and who understands that the gospel involves human growth at all levels. In the gospel, one also learns the reality that when a person tries to live out Jesus' message, he or she is usually marginalized. In that sense, the situation of women testifies to the fact that there are truths whose place will always be on the margins until the end times.

That is to say, you are prepared to go along on the margins or on the frontier and without aspiring to the altar.

The dynamic of the gospel margins is, in my opinion, the promotion of justice at all levels but knowing realistically that, whenever one manages a step forward, a process is generated whereby whoever doesn't want to stay in one place will continue to find reasons to go on walking towards the margins. Hence my theological defense of the margins.

And the ban on women's presence at the altar?

The conclusion of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was asked by Paul VI to study the issue, was that there is no Biblical reason whatsoever to deprive women of access to ordained ministry. That was in 1976. In 1974, the first women's ordinations in the Episcopal Church had taken place. Paul VI saw it coming that similar demands would be made in the Catholic Church so he asked the Pontifical Commission to study the issue.

What does the Pontifical Commission document say specifically?

It states that in the Scriptures there is nothing against it. After learning the conclusions of the Commission, Paul VI published a motu proprio in which he said that he didn't think women should be ordained in the Catholic Church.

And later on came John Paul II's attempt to close the subject definitively.

Yes, but no Pope has dared to proclaim this ban ex cathedra.

Is this flagrant discrimination against women in the Church a scandal?

Yes. For those who want to go deeper into this issue, I recommend Professor Gary Macy's book, The Hidden History of Women's Ordination.

How does this situation exist at a time, too, in which civil society is moving towards parity?

I don't like the pattern that has been set putting civil society in the vanguard and the Church in the rear on something in which it should be a pioneer. I think the situation between men and women and the way of viewing feminine and masculine in contemporary Western society is far from being satisfactory. What I'm most interested in discussing theologically are the critical theories of Lacan and some of the modern post-structuralists. Because, at the moment and acknowledging that there may be others who have had a different experience, where I have felt most respected as a woman has been in the Church and, specifically, in my convent. Compared to other environments, such as the hospital or the university, I stick with the monastery, by far, as a space of freedom and respect. In my relationship with the monks of Montserrat for example, I have found much richer possibilities for interaction than those I have generally experienced or observed between men and women who are colleagues at the hospital or university.

Then the Church isn't as anti-women as they say.

Look, we have to start to talk about this issue truthfully because, otherwise, it would seem like we have, on the one hand, a liberated society -- an oasis or mecca for women -- and, on the other hand, the Church that is an institution of oppression and disaster. My experience speaks to the contrary. Because, if it were such, perhaps I wouldn't be where I am.

Do you mean to say that there's a huge space of freedom within the Church in spite of everything?

There always has been. What happens is that you also have to denounce that, within the leadership ranks of the Church, women are totally unrepresented. And that is the scandal we were talking about.

Freedom for women in the Church-people of God and lack of representation in its hierarchy.

We have to change this notion of Church that looks upwards first. To talk about the Church, we have to first look down. And down there we find founders and initiatives that have no corollary in the civil world. At least up until now. We'll see what happens in the 21st century.

Some of the more conservative Web sites point fingers at you and accuse you of all sorts of heresies. Are you scared?

I remember St. Francis' "perfect joy" and I think it's essential for a Christian to know that when everybody is applauding you, you're going the wrong way. Unleashing the anger of certain sectors is not in itself a guarantee that you're right, but it's a bit better than when everyone is applauding you.

Is the hierarchical Spanish Church too closed in on itself and does it exert too much control over its ranks?

It's clear that, since Vatican II, there has been a turning inwards. And, one can note that in the Spanish Church fear exists and there's a lack of freedom to speak in different voices, which is what usually happens when people speak from their experience. That uniformity of expression is very troubling.

Is there a lack of diversity in the Spanish Church? Or, to put it another way, are the Spanish bishops able to accept that there are different church models or sensibilities and that all are valid?

Many bishops are able. The problem is that it's not just a matter of accepting that, but living it out. The bishops have the right and duty to exercise their pastoral responsibility according to their own consciences; they can't just substitute the criterion that comes from above for their own criterion. In that sense, the bishop doesn't only accept diversity, he becomes a generator of the latter and lives it.

You're a Benedictine nun. Does religious life have a future or has its time come to an end? What do you think?

I think it's very good. Religious life has changed throughout history and it will only have a future if it keeps on doing so. Change is inherent in religious life and only the branches that don't change tend to disappear. Maybe we Benedictines will come to an end, but those community spaces of people who see that their lives aren't fulfilled by living as a couple but in relationship with a community will always exist. Because they are also people who bear witness that this is the model for all in the eschatological world.

Religious life as anticipation of the heavenly life.

This is Christian anthropology. The life of the couple is the sacrament of God's own love but temporarily so. Community life is eschatologically so because God calls us to be people who understand that the relationship with all of humanity, with all who are created in God's image, is a relationship of absolute love, a relationship of giving and receiving like that of the Trinity. The Christian utopia proposes this life of trinitarian communion.

But that can also be experienced in marriage -- being open to all and loving all.

Obviously, but marriage is until death do us part. And that's why Jesus said: "You don't understand." Because, in Heaven, people don't marry.

Was your 2009 video denouncing the famous swine flu scheme so successful because it showed the superficiality of the great factual powers of information in a globalized world?

We have to be clear in the criticism that the growing inequality between rich and poor over the last 50 years is the greatest disaster in modern society. It is a much bigger scandal than the injustices to women in the Church that we talked about earlier, although there isn't much sense in comparing injustices, because each one is an absolute in itself. There is much to be criticized in modern society but not as a slogan. Because while it's true that this superficiality exists, it's also true that it's coexisting with people who really believe that one shouldn't wait for the solution to problems to come from above.

There's also a lot of good in current society.

Exactly. Today there are many people who are taking the reins of their lives into their own hands. It's true that we are going through a neoliberal stage that, at the structural level, can be compared to other stages in history in which there was a growing unease among the people.

What do you think of this growing outrage that's spreading everywhere, including in the Arab world?

I'm very worried about what's happening right now in Libya and Syria. And what could happen in Iran. Especially from the perspective of the great political lies. They did it twice, but it seems we weren't chastened. It happened in Iraq and later we regretted it. I think the same thing has happened with Gadhafi. They lie to justify a military intervention. Why don't we intervene in Saudi Arabia to liberate women?.. and yes, we did in Afghanistan.

Would you like the Pope to go to Somalia as a prophetic gesture to stop or mitigate the deaths of so many people and so many innocent children?

This might be another of those slogans from which I would like to stand apart. Perhaps now, when everybody's looking at Somalia, I might like the Pope to go somewhere else. Because disasters proliferate. For example, what's happening in Sudan?

Are the media fooling us?

I have the impression, which was confirmed in the case of swine flu, that another of the major current scandals in the lack of freedom in the world of information. There's more journalistic freedom in Periodista Digital or Vida Nueva than in El País or La Vanguardia.

Let's go back to where we started: life is better in the Church.

I wouldn't like to bite my tongue when it's time to criticize what can be criticized in the Church, but let no one ask me to say that there's greater freedom in civil society than in the Church, because it isn't true. Which doesn't mean that the Church has nothing to learn from non-ecclesial society. It always has.

Did you participate in, or see World Youth Day? What do you think of these kinds of events?

I didn't see much of it. The three youngest sisters in the convent went and they came back very content. The macro-Church event is perhaps a sign of the times. I attended one of those macro events in Venezuela for the 90th anniversary of the death of Monseñor Romero and it seemed extraordinary to me. The same thing happened to the people who went to see the Pope. These big church events are perhaps a sign of the times in the 21st century. What's important is the kind of message they send and how they use those spaces.

And how were they used during WYD?

I think there was a preponderance of conservative expressions and messages towards the young people along us-them (Church-society) lines, but there were also spaces where one could share the faith with a more open viewpoint.

Do you have hope for the future of society and the Church? Are you a hopeful woman?


For example, will we see a change in the Church in the short term?

More than in the short term, today. I like to look at reality the way Jesus asked us to. A look that sees that the fields are golden or mature and that there is just a need for harvesters. That outlook that sees, as St. Paul says, that the world is pregnant with God. And even already giving birth, and in places where nobody anticipated it. That's what gives hope.

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